A swath of shrink wrap held the priest’s cassock tight to the coffin as the four men, in what looked like white space suits, lifted it toward the pastor’s final journey May 11, on a funeral gurney through the main doors of the church that had been his home for 34 years.
At San Antonio Soyapango, a Catholic church named after St. Anthony of Padua in El Salvador’s second-largest city, Father Estefan Turcios, 70, pastored generations of working-class Salvadorans.
During the war in the late 1980s, a white flag hanging from his pickup, he took off from church with food and Communion to tend to his flock locked inside their homes.
“He said he had to feed them even as the bullets flew,” said Angelita Molina, the housekeeper at San Antonio’s parish house since 1987.
Back then, even though he’d been tortured by soldiers, he went up against them when a statue of a saint popular among his flock went missing after military occupied the church in 1989.
He walked into the military post and got the statue back.
But it was the coronavirus, ubiquitous and relentless in Soyapango for the last 13 months, that ended the life of the beloved pastor May 8.
“We love you, Father Estefan,” a woman shouted from a large crowd of parishioners and friends that gathered May 11 to cheer his last entrance to the church, where he had joyfully celebrated with them baptisms and weddings and dried tears during funerals. This time, however, the welcoming gates to the entrance quickly slammed to prevent the crowd, desperate to see the pastor, from entering as the truck carrying his coffin drove in.
Strict measures for COVID-19 funerals in El Salvador prevent more than two people at a burial, but in Father Turcios’ case, that became more complicated because his last wish, which parishioners carried out, was to be buried at his beloved church, meaning additional funeral home personnel had to be present to lower the coffin into an unusual indoor space.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him …